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Now and Then

Now and Then

5 October 2010

Jane Pritchard, Archive Consultant, looks back at English National Ballet's 60 year history.

In August this year, English National Ballet celebrates sixty years of performances, a good time to take stock of its achievements and investigate how much it has or has not changed over time. Like many companies it has had periods of crisis when it has had to retrench but throughout its existence its primary policy has remained consistent – to take high quality Ballet productions to audiences around Britain at affordable prices.

The Company’s founding Artistic Director, Anton Dolin, was a great proselytiser wanting to enthuse as many people as possible to enjoy Ballet which was why his own career had included performances on film, television, in music halls, variety and pantomime as well as performing with leading Ballet companies. His own companies always toured and with London’s Festival Ballet he began an outreach programme that continues to this day as Learning and Interpretation.
The Company, which acquired the name Festival Ballet in October 1950, began on a commercial basis; it had no public subsidy for the first 12 years of performances. It received some help in kind in having its administrative base from 1952 at the Royal Festival Hall, London, and in recognition of the Company’s significant role in presenting British Ballet on an international stage the British Council began to offer some assistance with overseas touring. It was not until after its dramatic bankruptcy in 1965 that London’s Festival Ballet became a client of the Arts Council although they had been in discussion about the Company’s future since 1962 when the London County Council began to financially assist the Company.

Founded by the trio of Anton Dolin (Artistic Director and premier danseur), Alicia Markova (ballerina) and Julien Braunsweg (Administrative Director and impresario), there was no guarantee the Company would have a long life. Markova and Dolin supported by Vivian van Damm Enterprises (of Windmill Theatre fame) had run their own touring company as a year-round operation between 1935 and 1937. This had presented eight shows a week and, given it was called the Markova-Dolin Ballet, audiences expected the two stars to appear at all performances. The new Company avoided such expectations with its more neutral name and quickly became a company with a constellation of international stars. These included Natalie Krassovska, Tamara Toumanova, Violette Verdy, Dame Beryl Grey, and Flemming Flindt. For the first London season at the Stoll Theatre (the old opera house which stood where the Peacock Theatre is today), the guests included Yvette Chauvire, Léonide Massine and Tatiana Riabouchinska. But the Company also presented British talent including the great danseur noble and virtuoso, John Gilpin, and his colleague from his Rambert days, Belinda Wright. 

Like English National Ballet, Festival Ballet was open to a range of dancers. The defecting Hungarian dancers, Nora Kovach and Istvan Rabovsky, impressed audiences in 1953 with their Soviet-style performances ahead, of course, of the Bolshoi’s tours to Britain. There may have been less uniformity of style in the Company in the 1950s but English National Ballet’s school was not established until 1988. In the 1950s the Company had close links with the Arts Educational School.

In August 1950 at Southsea, the performances from which English National Ballet dates its existence, the Company consisted of 40 dancers with a stage crew and administration of 10. Two of these, Anton Dolin and the Company Manager, Douglas Abbot, worked both sides of the curtain. By the Christmas Season, the regular Company of dancers had risen to 50 and thereafter fluctuated between about 50 and 70, settling at around 65 dancers, although it now takes on extras for the large-scale Royal Albert Hall productions. The Company has always been multi-national although, as with other British companies in the 1950s, it drew more heavily on the Commonwealth countries. 21 nationalities are represented this year including more dancers coming from Eastern Europe and Spanish-speaking countries.

In the early days of touring in Britain, the Company performed Monday to Saturday, usually with two matinées a week. It was not legal to give public performances on Sundays. Often guest stars were featured on Monday evenings, regarded as the toughest night to fill the theatre. Now the Company’s pattern of performance may start later in the week and include popular Sunday matinées. Tours are now also considerably shorter and longer periods are devoted to rehearsal.

One very obvious change between the 1950s and today was that in the early years the Company had no fixed abode or rehearsal base. Indeed it was not until the mid-1970s that the base was established in Queen Alexandra’s House, now known as Markova House. The ballroom (now the Upper Studio) in Queen Alexandra’s House along with the Donmar Studios (now The Donmar) had been among the rehearsal spaces they used although many productions were mounted ‘on the road’. In the 1950s the Company moved from one theatre to the next, shifting between large venues to much smaller stages and adapting works to the space as best they could. However now tours are tailored to the venues they visit. Mixed bills for smaller stages are features of the tour de force programmes which grew out of LFB2 of the 1980s and 1990s when the Company would split into smaller groups for parallel tours.

Soon after the Company’s foundation it began touring overseas, drawing on Braunsweg’s links as a European impresario. The first season abroad was in Monte Carlo in 1951 where the Company visited on several occasions, deliberately following in the footsteps of the Ballets Russes. In the 1950s the Company undertook long European tours visiting several countries and continuing for several months. Much of the travel would be by train. Overseas tours today tend to be to a single country or one specific destination and most long-distance travel is by plane. It has to be remembered that the 1950s was still a period of regeneration after the War. Many current European dance companies lacked the status they have since acquired and some did not even exist. One country that featured strongly on Festival Ballet’s itinerary was Spain, where frequent visits to Barcelona were made. Indeed I have spoken to people who grew up in Barcelona who felt, that in the 1950s, London Festival Ballet was their own company. Interestingly in the 21st century English National Ballet has become regular visitors again to the Liceo, Barcelona.

Just as visits to Europe were long so was the 1954 – 1955 coast to coast tour of Canada and the USA during which London Festival Ballet performed in 59 venues between October to February. More recent visits have focused on New York and Washington. Visits to Korea and Japan began in 1969 and to Australia in 1975. Rudolf Nureyev’s involvement with the Company in the 1970s and 1980s certainly assisted high profile international touring but until the mid-70s the Company regularly performed open-air summer seasons in the Mediterranean.
Productions increased in size after the London Coliseum became the Company’s London showcase theatre in 1969. Originally the principal dance season there was in the spring, now it is at Christmas. After Dame Beryl Grey became Artistic Director, the classics were refurbished and they were presented on a much larger scale with some, for example Nureyev’s productions of The Sleeping Beauty and Romeo and Juliet, never intended to be seen at the Royal Festival Hall. English National Ballet continued to adapt the concert hall to a proscenium arch stage most years until 1997.

Even larger productions, in respect of casts developed with Derek Deane’s in-the-round productions at the Royal Albert Hall beginning with Swan Lake in 1997. From the outset there was familiarity with arena performances; among these were pre-Company seasons at the Empress Hall and Harringay Arena. In the 1960s there was further involvement with arena performances as the Company presented a season with stars of Soviet ballet at the Royal Albert Hall in 1963 – 64 and their first full Swan Lake in 1964 at the Roman Amphitheatre, Verona. None of these were truly adapted to the space but allowed huge audiences to enjoy Ballet.

Although the improved conditions for the dancers have been significant (some venues continue to present challenges) and although patterns of financing the Company have changed, the most obvious change between the 1950s and now is in the repertoire. Now the focus for tours is a much more limited range of Ballets, with only one or two programmes rather than an extensive mix and match collection of Ballets. Initially the repertoire was dominated by mixed bills. Among the favourite Ballets were Symphony for Fun, Napoli (Bournonville’s Divertissement was then not widely known in Britain), Harald Lander’s show-piece, Etudes (which was performed at the celebrations for the wedding of Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly in Monte Carlo in 1956), and the lively Graduation Ball. It was rare to have a full-evening work – Esmeralda in 1954 being an unusual exception. Both Giselle and, until 1957, The Nutcracker were performed with another Ballet. There was a long tradition of twinning Giselle with the Polovtsian dances from Prince Igor. These provided a real contrast, the predominantly female romantic Ballet preceded by the aggressive Fokine production dominated by virile male dancers. This was echoed last season when Wayne Eagling showcased the company’s dancers in Men Y Men in a curtain-raiser to Giselle. The Company has created several remarkable works to showcase its men. In 1957 Dolin created the virtuoso Variations for Four as a companion to the female Pas de Quatre and in 1987 Christopher Bruce created his dramatic Swansong.

English National Ballet has survived because it caters for its audience. It provides good entertainment, talented dancers and balances novelties with famous Ballets, building up a following throughout the country. It has every reason to celebrate its achievements over its 60 year history.

Jane Pritchard, Archive Consultant, English National Ballet

Main photo shows The Nutcracker, choreographed by David Lichine, 1957

This feature appeared in DANCE magazine issue 453 (October – December).

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